Aquaculture – mankind’s future?

A photograph of a fishery at sunsetAs the world’s fisheries come under ever increasing demand and pressure, many companies and countries around the world are turning to aquaculture, the farming of fish, crustaceans, aquatic plants, and shellfish. But is this method of producing food the “green” answer it is often claimed to be?

Aquaculture is not a new concept by any means, there is evidence that suggests the farming of aquatic life was taking place as early as 6000bc on what could be called a commercial scale.

The modern age has mechanised, computerised, and scaled up this concept of food production into one of truly immense proportions. South America alone produces over a startling one million metric tons of farmed salmon per year, with methods some have described as unsustainable.

Globally, aquaculture has been a very erratic business in the last 40 years, with major outbreaks of disease wiping out hundreds of thousands of tons of fish at a time, and poor practices responsible for localised environmental changes, and pollution on a large scale.

A huge steel or plastic floating structure, anchored in place and powered by massive diesel generators has become the standard sea farm with what is described as a “footprint” devoid of life beneath it, that may extend some distance depending on local currents and conditions.

Fish being caught in Te Pangu BayIs this what Jacques Yves Cousteau envisioned when he made the following famous quote?

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting.”

But then, if one considers the reality of the world we live in, where violent conflict is an everyday occurrence, populations continue to grow and people go hungry …… then I think aquaculture is a step in the right direction.

Aquaculture in New ZealandIt could be argued that most aquacultural products demand a premium and in many countries are beyond the means of the average consumer. And this would be quite correct in many cases, but may in some part be off-set by the direct benefits to the local economy through job creation and a direct boost to the local economy.

The single greatest benefit aquaculture is receiving at the moment is technology. Automated systems deliver pellets to fish in a highly measured manner and consumption is monitored in points of a percentage. Geneticists are carrying out selective breeding programs so only the most efficient of stock are sent to sea and environmental monitoring is carried out using an array of high tech sensors and systems.

Water quality tests and histologies are carried out on site and the training requirements of staff are increasing exponentially in order to keep up. Thousands of scientists are busy scuttling about, working day and night on improving “feed conversion ratios” or the amount of feed in kilograms it takes to grow a kilogram of product.

Swimming fishSomething that possibly started out as an art form has become a science.

New Zealand fisheryWith increased use of technology, coupled with a strong social conscience, aquaculture just may be the answer to many of the world’s problems, which it could be argued are largely driven by increasing population and dwindling resources.

As long as mankind uses this tool as a farmer and not the hunter we have descended from, then I see aquaculture playing a very strong role in mankind’s future.

10 thoughts on “Aquaculture – mankind’s future?

  1. Christopher Roberts

    What a great post Ben! First of all, welcome to the team, it is a pleasure to have you as one of our writers. 🙂

    Food shortages are already common in our world, and I am sure that without serious work, these are only going to increase, so I think that every new potential source of food should be explored. If sustainable aquaculture is more viable than traditional land-based pastoral farming, then surely we should be encouraging it?

    How far will the fisheries go though. You say it used to be an art and is now a science, I feel it is the same with many other styles of farming – like battery chicken farming or bulk cow milking, where animals just stand still and eat, all day.

    A very thought provoking article, which no doubt will attract a big debate!

    • Thanks for the warm welcome Christopher, I look forward to being a part of the Technology bloggers community.
      I believe the key to successful Aquaculture must be a strong social conscience. Criminal practices of the past must never be repeated, and companies must strive to better themselves not on just profit margins, but ethically. They’re not just using water space for business, they are a custodian of it, and as such must strive to better themselves on many levels.

      • Christopher Roberts

        A very important point. The term corporate social responsibility seems to have been overused, but the concept is still valid – give back what you take, and do your best to tread lightly.

        I have to say, having read your blog, when I asked if you were interested in writing for us, I was expecting a more technology orientated post. I was actually [pleasantly] surprised when I read your submission. Anything that fits into any of our categories we more than welcome! Don’t feel you have to stick to one topic/niche – I don’t!

        Once again, thanks for such a great article Ben 🙂

  2. I don’t want to be too critical of your article but I believe that there are many problems with industrial fish farming. In the US it is one of the biggest users of fresh water, more so than dairy farming for example. The water is contaminated when it is later released and this causes all kinds of environmental damage, it is full of strange nutrients from the food, fish waste and antibiotics. Another problem is that the fish escape. If they are non native fish they cause all kinds of breeding problems, as well as killing the local fish if they are predators. If they are native fish they tend to be super bred, so much larger and more agressive than the locals and this causes problems. Also the fish are often fed other fish as food, and these have to be caught and are often wild, so Krill for example is taken on mass to feed captive fish leaving less for the wild fish. Or they feed them corn, which is cheap but not their natural food so they mutate, as have cows.

    Where fish are farmed in the developing world environmental issues and regulations are less likely to be enforced, and the product is largely for the rich, not the poor.

    Wild fish contain less pollutants within their body than farm raised and although the process of catching them is not currently sustainable we might imagine that it could be designed to be so.

    And finally people are not hungry in the world because there is not enough food. There is plenty of food. Here in the US more than half of all food produced is wasted, most of it dumped to protect the market.

    I do not personally believe that industrial food production will not do anything to help the planet or the poor unfortunately, it is business, and follows business rules.

    • Hi Jonny.

      Criticism is good, I don’t think I’d enjoy a world where everyone agreed on everything. Despite being employed by the industry I like to keep a totally objective approach, it’s the only way improvements can be made.

      You’ve raised some very valid points, such as enrichment in freshwater ways in the US. A solution to this is a form of aquaponics, where water being discharged is first cycled through one or several levels of crops. Very similar to hydroponics, with the exception that the aquacultural stock produce the fertiliser for the plants, which then remove excess nutrients to acceptable levels for discharge. Pretty much any kind of plant can be used, with the exception of most root vegetables. Growth rates on the green crop often exceed that of an enclosed hydroponic system.

      Think of aquaponics as a form of “companion” planting, or symbiosis. It has, however, been very slow to kick off, and requires a larger capital expenditure than a stand alone aquaculture operation. But expect to hear more of it in the near future.

      Stock escapes will always be a concern in any form of farming operation. Firstly, it represents a significant loss to the farmer concerned, along with in many countries, such as Norway, a legal obligation to recapture the lost stock. Much of the farmed Salmon in the world are in fact Triploids (3N) and are quite sterile. Most farmed fish become quite institutionalised and on escape, can barely fend for themselves. The overwhelming majority of farmed Salmon that escape in the ocean are quickly consumed by sea lions and seals.

      The subject of feed for farmed finfish is very good one, and hotly debated. The bulk of the fishmeal and oil used for Salmon farming for instance, comes from the reduction fishery off the coasts of Peru and Chile, and is largely Peruvian anchoveta. The largest annual catch on record of Peruvian anchoveta was 13.1 million tons in 1970, but the fishery has had massive variation in annual landings since recorded history, with just 94,000 tons landed in 1984, and 11.9 million tons in 1994.

      Using many different “recipes”, the resulting fishmeal is mixed with vegetable proteins, binding agents (wheat) and extruded in to same sized pellets. Fishmeal content varies, but a good rule of thumb is %15 – %40. Fishmeal, being one of the most expensive components of farmed finfish food, is used in bare minimum, with many companies around the world looking for suitable protein replacements such as legume by-products. Fishmeal is irreplaceable though, with its rich fatty acids, and will always be a component of extruded pelleted fish food. I have never seen any creditable evidence of mutations caused by use of plant proteins in farmed fish food, although it could possibly be caused by a composition that was too low in fishmeal, that is lacking in essential amino acids.

      A basic analysis of fish in, fish out on Atlantic Salmon would suggest 1 ton of wild fish such as Peruvian anchoveta would yield 225kg of fish meal, and 50kg of fish oil. At a %20 fish oil, %30 fishmeal diet, if we use most of the oil (35kg from the available 50kg) for the salmon, we can produce 175 kg of salmon feed and this produces 140 kg of salmon, at an industry standard FCR of 1.25. This would also use 53 kg of the available 225kg of fishmeal. An estimate of fishmeal used from other by-products, such as Pollock, would range in the order of %20, reducing requirement for reduction fishery species further.

      The developing world often gets shafted, be it mining, clearing forest for palm kernel, or any other form of industrialisation. And you’re right Jonny, it’s not right. Sadly, I thinks it’s more an inherent trait of human nature. People as a species, are utter pigs.

      The incidence of heavy metals and other “nasties” in farmed fish can be narrowed down to certain countries, practices, and in some cases certain companies. That kinda makes you think.

      There are several quota management systems around the world now that are accredited as being sustainably managed fisheries, such as the Hoki fishery in New Zealand. But, even the best managed sustainable fisheries produce a by-product, which averages in the order of %65 – %70 of total green weight!

      In the ideal world, this and this alone would be used to farm fish in an environmentally manner. Of course species of “low food value”, such as the Peruvian anchoveta, could also be sustainably fished as a reduction species.

      Its such an opportunity for our children’s future, but will man’s greed destroy it all?

      I’d like to say I’m optimistic mate, but I don’t know if I am. With man being man and all, and our “great” track record. I’ll skip over the US food wastage for tonight, as much as I’d love to keep typing.

      Heck, I don’t even have time for proof-reading. EEK!

      EDITOR NOTE: I have had a quick scan through for you and changed a few minor spelling/grammatical issues. 🙂 I don’t usually like editing comments, but I don’t feel I changed anything major, and you kind of asked! – note by Christopher

      dom 🙂

      • Christopher Roberts

        Gosh, I never knew asking you to write for us could open such a can of worms Ben!

        Firstly, please note that Jonny is known in this field, and also has various contacts in this area too. That said, I appreciate that you also have knowledge of the industry from your work, so you both clearly have an understanding of the field and how things work.

        Don’t ever worry about the length of a comment Ben, I have written much bigger ones, Jonny will tell you!

        I don’t feel in a position to address many of your points, except the ones referring to mankind.

        “The developing world often gets shafted, be it mining, clearing forest for palm kernel, or any other form of industrialisation. And you’re right Jonny, it’s not right. Sadly, I thinks it’s more an inherent trait of human nature. People as a species, are utter pigs.” – to some extent I have to agree. I see your point and feel in many cases it is valid. That said, I do also believe that there are many people our there who are improving the world. As a race, there are a few people who give us a bad reputation, and it seems the masses just follow for ease, however I honestly believe that the majority of people would do the right thing, if given the option, and there are actually very few people who are “utter pigs”.

        A final point from me, please respect each other. I have no doubt there is no need for me to ask that of you both, as from what I have seen, Ben you are a very levelheaded individual, as is Jonny.

        Jonny is very knowledgeable in his field, and in terms of our community, he is a respected, highly regarded, well known member.

        From your recent comments, and first article I can see you have the potential to be a very valuable asset to the community, and I would love you to stick around, as I am sure Jonny would too. It is a two way process, why would myself and Jonny still be blogging if we didn’t feel rewarded for our efforts?

        On a final [final] note, you might want to consider taking a browse through Jonny’s archives. Every Thursday he posts something competently new, which is always worth a read. Here are a few posts I highly recommend:

        Thanks again for your comment.

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